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The perfect balance
When it comes to wine lists, size doesn't matter

By JESSICA BELL
Photos by Dan Bishop

April 2014

At Buckley’s Restaurant and Bar, Pappardelle with smoked mushrooms pairs with a 2013 Podere Ruggeri Corsini Barbera d’Alba, Piemonte, Italy.

 

I’ve always harbored a bias for the underdog. I prefer Milwaukee to New York City. I frequent quaint neighborhood joints over expensive flashy ones. And I squeal at the prospect of an exceptionally curated single-paged wine list over those that are indexed, tabbed and bound.

Contrary to popular belief, a lengthy wine list, by virtue of its size, is not always superior. Ten pages of obscure French wines do not make a wine list, much less a wine program. So what makes a handful of Milwaukee restaurants’ wine programs excel, in spite of their single-paged status? Simply stated, it’s experience.

Allium, Braise, Buckley’s, Odd Duck and Zarletti are among Milwaukee-area restaurants that recognize their wine programs can unlock the door to the experience diners have come to expect. This wisdom stems in part from the fact that, with the exception of Braise, their wine buyers double as restaurant owners. "We are in the business of selling the whole experience of food and wine," says Brian Zarletti of Zarletti Restaurant.

Their wine programs do not lean on expensive wines, old vintages or obscure grape varietals to achieve that aim. Rather, they have developed organized, diverse and dynamic wine lists set against a backdrop of knowledgeable, but approachable service.

These one-paged wonders seem deceptively simple, but their keepers go to great lengths to build organized and accurately referenced wine lists. From Allium’s small but unique selection, to Odd Duck’s self-described "good mix of ‘safe’ and ‘a little out there,’" to Zarletti’s predominantly Italian options, all five wine lists are easy to navigate. I particularly appreciated the strategic use of formatting to visually bookmark important details such as grape, region and country at Buckley’s and Braise. Their keen application of wine knowledge facilitated a quick and productive scan of the lists’ contents, reducing the time my husband had to stare off into space.

A wide range of wine styles is a telltale sign of a notable wine list, but achieving this diversity within the confines of 50 wines requires expertise. Allium’s list, the smallest of the lot, accomplishes this in fewer than 40 wines, and yet it always resonates with me. Allium owner Stephen Marks and I share a love of, in his words, "authentic terroir-driven" European wines. All the more reason I respect him when I spot a California chardonnay on the list — evidence he knows wine and the business of wine. "I try to balance what I like with what is important to have," he says.

Working within the constraints of a predominantly Italian wine list, Zarletti seeks out "something for everyone at every price point" but manages to maintain "a very tight list." The guest need not go further than the first section, sparkling wine, to witness this. I pounced on a glass of dry, red Lambrusco, an inexpensive food-friendly wine trend perfect for antipasti. Even so, I would happily share the Sarocco, arguably the best expression of Moscato d’Asti, with my mom, or my favorite champagne, Vilmart, at $120, with anyone willing to pick up the check.

These wine lists change weekly, if not daily, to offer even greater diversity. Hung Hoang, wine buyer for Braise, relies on a dynamic list instead of "deep pockets or a huge cellar." Hoang explains that although Braise’s list is constantly evolving, it has two "faces" — lighter, brighter wines for summer and heavier, more lush wines for winter. In February, I plunged deep into winter with the dark and brooding Feudi de San Marzano’s Negroamaro, paired with a cheese board. The mirage of warm and rustic southern Italy quickly dissipated as we walked back to the car.

Odd Duck’s Melissa Buchholz recognizes her small-plate menu makes it "difficult to pair one wine with the whole meal." In response, Odd Duck offers an impressive rotating list of nearly 30 wines by the glass. On one occasion, my husband and I shared no less than six glasses of wine and seven small plates. With such an extensive and varied cast of culinary "characters" at our fingertips, our dinner was perpetually shape-shifting as dishes and glasses entered stage left and exited stage right. I particularly applauded the final act — bacon-wrapped Gouda-stuffed dates with a jammy Syrah from Washington.

A well-planned, diverse and dynamic wine list is of little value if its contents do not translate into satisfied guests. The waitstaff bears the responsibility of bridging the divide between an outstanding wine list and a memorable wine experience. Buchholz describes her staff’s role as "guides" through a meal at Odd Duck. Unbeknownst to the bartender, Buchholz recommended a dry moscato from northern Italy. Tending a full bar and restaurant, the bartender still took time to offer me a taste, explaining most guests "expect a sweet moscato, but this one is dry." I was pleased with his concern, and even more so, with the wine.

These restaurants not only welcome, but also expect their guests to seek out wine advice. Their wine buyers hunt down lesser-known, value-driven wines that guests may otherwise never try. In doing so, their lists teeter between delivering that coveted experience and alienating the guest. At all five restaurants, a safety net of approachable, yet informed wine service promotes the former.

Often the wine buyer, who has tasted every wine on the list, is available for consultation. Allium’s Marks, who describes his list as "a bit off the beaten path," encourages his staff to "Ask Stephen" when they cannot confidently advise on wine. On the night I dined there, Marks offered insight on the Lebanese Musar wine, which turned out to be much like Allium: unique, simple and cozy.

Buckley, often found behind the bar, also enjoys sharing his insight. When my friends requested something "big and jammy," I gave them, to rave reviews, Alto Moncayo’s Veraton from Spain. I had to, regrettably, remind them I didn’t make the wine, just ordered it. For the second bottle, I handed the reigns to Buckley. When he recommended the rarely jammy Nebbiolo grape, I had my doubts, but Buckley knows his list. Our table enjoyed the wine and tried something we would have otherwise overlooked.

These restaurants educate and prepare their waitstaff with regular staff trainings, and access to reference books, binders, lectures, trade tastings and even field trips. Braise, in particular, understands the importance of staff training. Initially, I was disappointed to learn Braise’s wine buyer was not available. However, having sat at the bar, I engaged several servers about the wine list, and all were sufficiently prepared to provide sound advice.

The reasonable pricing on these lists further promotes an approachable wine program. They all believe a wine list should be drunk, not admired. "I want people to drink this wine … it’s not a showpiece," Odd Duck’s Buchholz says. As such, more than half of each list is priced at $50 or less, and for most, the entire list comes in under $100. All indicated their most expensive wines are sold at lower margins, in some cases just above retail, to ensure the wine moves.

These restaurateurs understand and appreciate the role wine plays at their restaurants. A successful wine program will complement the food, lighten the mood and perhaps even transform a meal into an experience. "We try not to take wine seriously, but it is a serious thing if you care about it," Marks says.

Wine Guide

Allium

2101 N. Prospect Ave.

Wine Buyer: Stephen Marks

Comments: Small but eclectic list featuring affordable European wines

Wine References: 37

No. of Wines Under $50: 32

Buckley’s

801 N. Cass St.

Wine Buyer: Britt Buckley

Comments: International, Asian-cuisine-friendly list with hidden gems and well-known brands

Wine References: 52

No. of Wines Under $50: 35

Braise

1101 S. Second St.

Wine Buyer: Hung Hoang

Comments: Seasonal and high-acid list featuring familiar European regions

Wine References: 49

No. of Wines Under $50: 35

Odd Duck

2352 S. Kinnickinnic Ave.

Wine Buyer: Melissa Buchholz

Comments: International list featuring an extensive and dynamic wine by glass selection

Wine References: 68

No. of Wines Under $50: 39

Zarletti

741 N. Milwaukee St.

Wine Buyer: Brian Zarletti

Comments: Classic Italian list with both traditional players and innovative newcomers

Wine References: 78

No. of Wines Under $50: 34





 

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